May 'Lights' shine bright

Times Staff Writer

IN a perfect world, TV networks would broadcast the very best shows they could find and viewers, hungry for excellence, would elevate the cream of the crop to positions of popularity commensurate with their quality. If this dream were flesh, NBC's "Friday Night Lights" would not be adored by only a passionate few, and the season's bona fide hits, "Heroes," "Jericho" and "Ugly Betty," would have more company in the winner's circle.

The first thing anyone who has not discovered "Friday Night Lights" should know is, it is not about football. While it would seem logical to call a show that revolves around a high school football team in a rural western Texas town a sports story, that description doesn't really apply.

Well, then, since it is a hormonally charged episodic drama focused on relationships, featuring mostly young, telegenic actors, would "Friday Night Lights" be a teen soap? Nope. It isn't that either.

Predicting which pilots will take off is a black art. Highly anticipated series, blessed with star power and the DNA of talented writers and producers, crash and burn. Other shows defy low expectations and, after being championed by viewers, earn a place in pop culture history. And sometimes, nasty things happen to good shows -- bad timing, tough competition, misdirected ads. "Friday Night Lights" was rather neglected, as NBC and the media lavished "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" with attention, and then "Heroes" -- thanks to its large, noisy fan base -- moved into the spotlight. Critics praised "Friday Night Lights" as exceptional, but their influence has not been significant. Promoting a series about football during Sunday night's prime time games should have been a terrific idea. But not if parenting, drug abuse, racism, ambition and homosexuality regularly take possession of stories with the moxie of an ace wide receiver.

"We've been uncertain about what message we want to send about what this show is," says executive producer Brian Grazer, whose Imagine Television developed the series. "It has a different look, and it can take a minute or so for people to find its emotional epicenter. It was an extremely risky idea, because it doesn't have a conventional form. But the alternative to trying something different is doing the same thing over and over, and that isn't very rewarding."

NBC had enough confidence in its critically acclaimed wallflower to give it a full-season order before Thanksgiving. The network just made good on its promise to find "Friday Night Lights" a luckier time slot (it had the misfortune of debuting at 8 p.m. Tuesdays, without a strong lead-in and against the ratings juggernaut "Dancing with the Stars"). Beginning Jan. 10, the show will air at 8 p.m. Wednesdays. If its producers can figure out how to market their anomaly, perhaps word will spread that the show that isn't what it might seem is the best new series on TV that not many people are watching.

"We're very passionate in our belief in 'Friday Night Lights,' " says Kevin Reilly, president of NBC Entertainment. "In television history, there have been more drama series that developed an audience over time and then went on to become long-running hits than those that took off immediately. We know this program has devoted fans. Once people find it, they're hooked."

Even if Reilly weren't aware of the Internet posts from women who confess they hate football but love the series, he's had many women tell him the same thing in person. "It's like a point of pride with them," he says.

"Friday Night Lights" surfaced in 1990 as a nonfiction account of the year journalist H.G. Bissinger spent following a high school football team in Odessa, Texas. Required reading in many schools, it's considered one of the finest books ever written about sports in America. It took 14 years and an end run through a squad of writers and directors before a film version was released in 2004, produced by Grazer, co-written and directed by Peter Berg, and starring Billy Bob Thornton as Coach Gary Gaines.

The movie was set in 1988; the TV series is contemporary. In the series, the fictional town of Dillon stands in for Odessa, and while many of its residents were inspired by characters in the book, the people and plots are writers' inventions.

It can be difficult for outsiders to comprehend the importance of high school football in the Lone Star state, where a 10,000-seat stadium in a town of 8,000 sells out every game. Before making the movie, Berg spent six months living in Texas, sitting in on high school classes and hanging out with players and their families. Berg has an actor's eye for detail -- he starred in "Chicago Hope" for three seasons, and memorably in the 1994 film noir "The Last Seduction." He says, "After spending time in Texas, I came out with a comprehensive understanding of the role athletics play in our high school culture, and in an anthropological sense, that's what interests me." He poured his research into the "Friday Night Lights" pilot, which he wrote and directed, and the show's themes and stories are informed by it.

Anthropology yielded melodrama. The bleak, common truth that sometimes marks late adolescence as the best of times is at the core of Dillon's football obsession. The town's adults remain infatuated with the game because nothing else in their lives is as thrilling. Their self-esteem is wedded to success on the playing field.

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On the verge of manhood

AS if the pressure to win were not enough, football's mortal stakes can never be far from the players' minds. In the season's opening game, a brutal tackle leaves quarterback Jason Street (Scott Porter) paralyzed from the waist down. He was the golden boy expected to lead the Panthers to the state championships and to eventually earn a place in the NFL. After he's injured, his girlfriend, Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly), supports him with such unceasingly upbeat devotion that he sometimes longs to wring her perky little neck. Jason isn't brain damaged; he knows what he's lost. Being in denial provides Lyla with some comfort, but not enough to keep her out of the arms of Jason's best friend, Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch). Poor Riggins thought loneliness was as bad as it gets, before guilt and lust showed up. Will Jason discover their betrayal? Will Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), the bright, shy, backup quarterback who looks after the ailing grandmother he lives with while his father is off fighting in Iraq, deliver in Jason's place?

If "Friday Night Lights" sounds like a soap opera, then it's worth remembering Charles Dickens wrote serialized dramas and a cheesy country song is only a few heartstrings away from one of Bruce Springsteen's poetic masterpieces. The show's soulful soundtrack often features Texas bands such as Explosions in the Sky, but the title theme by W.G. Snuffy Walden stars a solitary guitar, now restless, now elegiac. Underwritten scripts, subtle performances, plus the tone, pace, look and sound of the show catapult it into a realm where emotions ring true and stories are rarely predictable or preachy.

With this series, as in the most satisfying thrillers, things are not what they seem. Miss Perfect cheerleader, she of the flawless complexion and sweet smile, isn't. The surly bad boy with a drinking problem is more sensitive and needier than anyone would suspect. In the "Homecoming" episode, a former winning quarterback, current life loser, suffers on the downward slope of the cocky high school athlete's too-much-too-soon arc. So much for the return of the hometown hero.

In a thoroughly modern way, "Friday Night Lights" has brought back the strong, reserved American man -- think Gary Cooper or Gregory Peck. Kyle Chandler, that rare leading actor able to make his good looks beside the point -- except in the movie "King Kong," where he was cast as a matinee idol -- plays Coach Eric Taylor, whom everyone just calls Coach. He is a model of grace under pressure, a man with a steady moral compass and zero job security. On the surface, his mission is to win football games. Underneath, he's engaged in turning boys into men (that could also be said about the show). Coach's high boiling point serves him well in a town where he is treated like public property, a 24/7 servant of the people expected to be attentive to the dopey suggestions and veiled threats of the Panthers' ubiquitous boosters.

"We were determined not to do hyper-verbal New York/Los Angeles media guys," says Imagine Television president and executive producer David Nevins. "We wanted to be true to the place and these people, to do a show about the inner life of guys without spending a lot of time talking about the inner life of guys. Just because the writers have a facility for words doesn't mean the characters do. These guys who don't need to waste words but have a rich emotional life are also incredibly appealing to women."

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Couple's working partnership

WOMEN, and men, could also be ready to see that rare TV bird, a functioning marriage, portrayed. Chandler is matched by Connie Britton as his wife, Tami, and, unlike the dumbo sitcom couples who communicate by way of double entendres about doing time in a post-nuptial sexual wasteland, the Taylors are strong individuals in love who wonder when a knowing teenager took the place of their little daughter, Julie (Aimee Teegarden). They squabble, disagree, care about the other's happiness and, win or lose, are unquestionably a team. Britton is the only cast member who appeared in the movie, where as the coach's wife she was a long-suffering helpmate. In the series, she's become a real partner in an unusually positive, believable, sexy marriage.

A few seasons ago, network television producers and directors woke up to the fact that TV series didn't have to look the way they always had, and a number of dramatic shows were given big-screen production values. Despite the tyranny of the 42-minute hour, with its four-act structure dictated by commercial breaks, there was an attempt to lend television the cinematographic sophistication and narrative velocity of movies. Thanks to its pedigree, "Friday Night Lights" had a ready-made template for breaking the small-screen mold. The series, like the movie, uses documentary techniques, overlapping dialogue and a visual language influenced by old NFL films shot with 16-millimeter cameras. Executive producer Berg says, "We shoot everything with at least three hand-held cameras, the actors are encouraged to improvise and we don't work on sets, we're on real locations in Texas working with natural lighting as much as we can. All that creates something more raw than people are used to seeing."

"Friday Night Light's" restless camera seems to have a mind of its own. Scenes are typically short, yet filled with realistic texture. The payoff for abandoning traditional film grammar -- long shot, medium shot, close-up, reverse close-up, and the lingering reaction shots soaps like to use -- is greater spontaneity and energy. "Scenes start in the middle of a conversation and you're out before it's over," Britton says. "As an actor, a lot of the time you aren't even aware of where the camera is. You never have to hit a mark. You just play the scene and the result is a much more naturalistic style of acting comes through. We're able to be more authentic."

The Panthers' motto -- chanted before, during and after every game -- is "Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose." Berg made that up, and he could now invoke it as a mantra, a prophecy and a prayer, as NBC considers how much longer it can wait for "Friday Night Lights" to build its audience. The memory of "Wonderland," a series he wrote and directed that ABC canceled in 2000 after airing only two episodes, still smarts. "It was very frustrating and creatively heartbreaking to have worked so hard on a show and received a positive critical response and have it so quickly and unceremoniously taken off the air," he says. "We're very grateful that NBC has stuck with this show that's been problematic, from a ratings standpoint."

At the end of October, "Friday Night Lights" was given the Monday time period of "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" for one night. Positioned after "Heroes," it held more of that show's audience than "Studio 60" does, attracting 8.3 million viewers, about 2 million more than it normally gets on Tuesday. Once it moves to Wednesdays, perhaps the fans who blog about their "addiction" to "Friday Night Lights" will have an easier time convincing their friends to tune in. And maybe, then, the meaning of "Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose" will be debated on the Web with the intensity of "Save the cheerleader, save the world," the rallying cry of "Heroes" fans.

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mimi.avins@latimes.com

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